The Rise of the Anti-clockwise Newel Stair
THE CASTLE STUDIES GROUP JOURNAL, NO. 25: 2011-12
The traditional castle story dictates that all wind- ing, newel, turnpike or spiral staircases in medi- eval great towers, keep-gatehouses, tower houses and mural wall towers ascended clockwise. This orthodoxy has it that it offered a real functional military advantage to the defender; a persistent theory that those defending the stair from above had the greatest space in which to use their right-handed sword arm. Conversely, attackers mount- ing an upward assault in a clockwise or right- handed stair rotation would not have unfettered use of their weaponry or have good visibility of their intended victim, as their right sword hand would be too close to the central newel.
Whilst there may be other good reasons for clockwise (CW) stairs, the oft-repeated thesis supporting a military determinism for clockwise stairs is here challenged. The paper presents a corpus of more than 85 examples of anticlockwise (ACW) spiral stairs found in medieval castles in England and Wales dating from the 1070s through to the 1500s. Whilst admittedly scarce in the Norman period (1070-1200), they rise in pop- ularity from about the 1240s, especially with the introduction of the twin-towered gatehouse, see regular use in the Edwardian castles of the late- 13th century in towers of all kinds, and are used consistently and more frequently thereafter.
The paper examines the functional, stylistic and aesthetic reasons for these changes, their general architectural and constructional development, from wide-vaulted stone staircases, to simple one-piece stone cut-slabs (winders) that fitted into both the containing wall and formed part of the central newel, and the later brick vaults and brick stairs.